Man of the West is riven with pain. Made in 1958 during the twilight of the Western genre, it is reflective and interiorized, mapping twisted psychological landscapes over the flattened physical ones. Director Anthony Mann was obsessed with transposing King Lear into the Western, with Lear figures appearing in The Furies (1950), The Man From Laramie (1955), and Man of the West. Mann had dreams of making a more faithful Western adaptation of Lear, and would pursue it the rest of his life. He was working on a version simply titled The King at the time of his death in 1967.
In The Furies and The Man From Laramie these dissipated patriarchs are corrupted cattle barons, while in Man of the West it is a sociopathic dementia-addled bandit named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) – who has three sons instead of Lear’s daughters. Gary Cooper plays Dock’s nephew Link, who was once in murderous thrall to Dock, but has since reformed and married. After a thwarted train robbery Link is absorbed back into Dock’s orbit, and is forced to confront the sins of his youth.
Man of the West was initiated by producer Walter C. Mirisch, who had moved his independent production unit from Allied Artists over to United Artists. He had an affection for aging, totemic Western stars, but tried to pair them with more “adult”, and violent, subject matter. Mirisch’s first production for UA was Fort Massacre (1958), a siege Western starring Joel McCrea. McCrea played a cavalry commander pushed to madness by his hatred of the Apache. The next star Mirisch wanted to dirty up was Cooper. So he sent him the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown, which Cooper approved. Instead of handing script duties to a genre veteran, Mirisch gave the job to Reginald Rose, who came out of high-toned television dramas, and who had written the popular film adaptation of 12 Angry Men (1957).
The script was a hard and violent character study, so Mirisch then brought on Anthony Mann to bring out its psychological subtleties. Mann had recently completed a remarkable series of five Westerns with James Stewart, ending with The Man From Laramie. In Laramie Stewart wandered into the Oedipal anxieties of a power hungry cattle family, the Western landscape a battleground of macho neuroses. The family unit in Man of the West is even more perverse, an all-male gang of thieves led by a half-mad old coot.
Dock Tobin seems to have cracked since Link’s departure, his crew a sloppy bunch of thugs and idiots, including a sweaty mute (Royal Dano) and a jumpy pervert (Jack Lord) Unlike Lear, there is no one left to inherit his ramshackle kingdom (an isolated ranch). The re-appearance of Link ignites his old dreams, and so the old man ranting in a rocking chair flails to life, scheming a big bank job. He immediately begins remembering their past exploits: ”God forgive us we painted their walls with blood that time”. But the bank no longer exists — it’s just another figment of past glories swirling in Dock’s head.
This is one of Mann’s most precisely choreographed films, with figures constantly activating each quadrant of the CinemaScope frame. The extended night sequence set at Dock’s ranch shows his command of composition. Link, along with two civilians, have been stranded by a botched train heist. The only home within walking distance is Dock’s, so LInk plays along with Dock’s delusion until he can figure a way out. At their first meeting in the ranch house the Tobin gang and Link stand stock still as Dock weaves his way between them, as if Dock had stopped time through his reminiscences. As the evening progresses it moves from Dock’s dreams to a living nightmare. The stillness of the Tobin gang remains (Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared these compositions to Antonioni), but the threat of violence ratchets up when Billie (Julie London) enters the room. Mann begins to utilize low-angle, looming close-ups, while the flickering of the lamplight captured by DP Ernest Haller gives the room an infernal feel. Eventually Link is held at knifepoint as Billie is forced to strip. It only stops when Dock asserts his newfound virility and orders everyone out, emptying out the frame. The whole sequence is a series of constricting horizontals, a visual template that reappears in the final shootout, done in between the floor slats of crumbling ghost town homes.
The whole film feels like an ending. For Westerns at large, for Anthony Mann’s artistic peak , and for the career of Gary Cooper. It is one of Cooper’s greatest performances, borne out of intense physical debility. At the time of shooting Cooper was almost sixty, and suffering from intense back pain, which he blamed on an old hip injury. For him the production was a test of how much pain he could endure. Mirisch marveled at his professionalism: “That particular day, I saw that Coop was very upset. When I asked him what the trouble was, he told me his back pain was just excruciating. …He told me that the pain of riding his horse down that street was almost unendurable. I could see it in his face. I suggested to him that he let his double…do the ride in a long shot. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘No, I have to do it. You have to be close on me.’ And he did do the ride down that street himself.” It is unclear if his poor health was related to the prostate cancer that ultimately killed him in 1961, but his body was failing him. His performance is heroic – one of tensed, grimacing fragility, his reformed outlaw clinging to life out of sheer will.
Though he does not portray the Lear role, he conveys its complicated emotions more than Lee J. Cobb’s more straightforward, harrumphing villainy. Cooper is conflicted, violent, and obsolete, introduced gawking at the new railroad carving through the West. He recoils from the smoke belched out by these iron leviathans. He has to board the beast, and these opening sequences are almost slapstick, as Cooper fumbles with his seat and repeatedly lunges into the passenger ahead of him. He only regains his authority by entering into Tobin’s demented dream of their shared violent past. Cooper forces his body into its familiar ramrod posture to once again face down the bad guys, with his mortality pressing down on every frame.